Chap. XIX.

Of the Pictures of Mermaids, Unicorns, and some others.

FEW eyes have escaped the Picture of Mermaids;[1] that is, according to Horace his Monster, with womans head above, and fishy extremity below: and these are conceived to answer the shape of the ancient Syrens that attempted upon Ulysses. Which notwithstanding were of another description, containing no fishy composure, but made up of Man and Bird; the humane mediety variously placed not only above, but below: according unto Ælian, Suidas, Servius, Boccatius, and Aldrovandus: who hath referred their description unto the story of fabulous Birds; according to the description of Ovid, and the account thereof in Hyginus, that they were the daughters of Melpomene, and metamorphosed into the shape of man and bird by Ceres.

And therefore these pieces so common among us, do rather derive their original, or are indeed the very descriptions of Dagon; which was made with human figure above, and fishy shape below; whose stump, or as Tremellius and our margin renders it, whose fishy part only remained, when the hands and upper part fell before the Ark.2 Of the shape of Atergates, or Derceto with the Phœniceans; in whose fishy and feminine mixture, as some conceive, were implyed the Moon and the Sea, or the Deity of the waters; and therefore, in their sacrifices, they made oblations of fishes. From whence were probably occasioned the pictures of Nereides and Tritons among the Grecians, and such as we read in Macrobius, to have been placed on the top of the Temple of Saturn.[3]

We are unwilling to question the Royal Supporters of England, that is, the approved descriptions of the Lion and the Unicorn.[4] Although, if in the Lion the position of the pizell be proper, and that the natural situation; it will be hard to make out their retrocopulation, or their coupling and pissing backward, according to the determination of Aristotle; All that urine backward do copulate πυγηδὸν, clunatim, or aversly, as Lions, Hares, Linxes.

As for the Unicorn, if it have the head of a Deer, and the tail of a Boar, as Vartomannus describeth it, how agreeable it is to this picture every eye may discerne. If it be made bisulcous or cloven footed, it agreeth unto the description of Vartomannus, but scarce of any other; and Aristotle supposeth that such as divide the hoof, do also double the horn; they being both of the same nature, and admitting division together. And lastly if the horn have this situation and be so forwardly affixed, as is described, it will not be easily conceived, how it can feed from the ground; and therefore we observe, that Nature in other cornigerous animals, hath placed the horns higher and reclining, as in Bucks; in some inverted upwards, as in the Rhinoceros, the Indian Ass, and Unicornous Beetles; and thus have some affirmed it is seated in this animal.[5]

We cannot but observe that in the Picture of Jonah and others, Whales are described with two prominent spouts on their heads; whereas indeed they have but one in the forehead, and terminating over the windepipe.[6] Nor can we overlook the Picture of Elephants with Castles on their backs, made in the form of land Castles, or stationary fortifications, and answerable unto the Arms of Castile, or Sr. John Old Castle; whereas the towers they bore, were made of wood, and girt unto their bodies; as is delivered in the books of Maccabees, and as they were appointed in the Army of Antiochus.

We will not dispute the Pictures of Retiary Spiders, and their position in the web, which is commonly made laterall, and regarding the Horizon; although, if observed, we shall commonly find it downward, and their heads respecting the Center. We will not controvert the Picture of the seven Stars; although if thereby be meant the Pleiades, or subconstellation upon the back of Taurus, with what congruity they are described, either in site or magnitude, in a clear night an ordinary eye may discover, from July unto April. We will not question the tongues of Adders and Vipers, described like an Anchor; nor the picture of the Flower de Luce: though how farre they agree unto their naturall draughts, let every Spectator determine.

Whether the Cherubims about the Ark be rightly described in the common Picture, that is, only in humane heads, with two wings; or rather in the shape of Angels or young men, or somewhat at least with feet, as the Scripture seems to imply.7 Whether the Cross seen in the air by Constantine, were of that figure wherein we represent it; or rather made out of X and P, the two first letters of χριστὸς. Whether the Cross of Christ did answer the common figure; whether so far advanced above his head; whether the feet were so disposed, that is, one upon another, or separately nailed, as some with reason describe it: we shall not all contend. Much less whether the house of Diogenes were a Tub framed of wood, and after the manner of ours; or rather made of earth, as learned men conceive, and so more clearly make out that expression of Juvenal.8 We should be too critical to question the letter Υ, or bicornous element of Pythagoras,[9] that is, the making of the hornes equal: or the left less then the right, and so destroying the Symbolical intent of the figure; confounding the narrow line of Vertue, with the larger roade of vice; answerable unto the narrow door of Heaven, and the ample gates of Hell, expressed by our Saviour,[10] and not forgotten by Homer, in that Epithete of Pluto's house.11

Many more there are whereof our pen shall take no notice, nor shall we urge their enquiry; we shall not enlarge with what incongruity, and how dissenting from the pieces of Antiquity, the Pictures of their gods and goddesses are described, and how hereby their symbolical sense is lost; although herein it were not hard to be informed from Phornutus,[12] Fulgentius,[13] and Albricus.[14] Whether Hercules be more properly described strangling than tearing the Lion, as Victorius hath disputed; nor how the characters and figures of the Signs and Planets be now perverted, as Salmasius hath learnedly declared.15 We will dispense with Bears with long tails, such as are described in the figures of heaven; We shall tolerate flying Horses, black Swans,[16] Hydra's, Centaur's, Harpies, and Satyrs; for these are monstrosities, rarities, or else Poetical fancies, whose shadowed moralities requite their substantial falsities. Wherein indeed we must not deny a liberty; nor is the hand of the Painter more restrainable than the pen of the Poet. But where the real works of Nature, or veritable acts of stories are to be described, digressions are aberrations; and Art being but the imitator or secondary representor, it must not vary from the verity of the example; or describe things otherwise than they truly are or have been. For hereby introducing false Idea's of things it perverts and deforms the face and symmetry of truth.


My notes (and other people's) are in square brackets [ ]; addenda from manuscripts are in curly braces { }; Browne's own marginalia are unmarked. This, along with the neighboring chapters, Ross dismissses as "wrastling with shadows", Arcana Microcosmi II.12), except that he does add a bit of information on cherubim. It's not clear whether the beings mentioned in this chapter are regarded as real or not by some people, even in the modern world, but clearly they were in Browne's (and Ross's) day by many people.

1 [An exceedingly long note in Wilkin may be summarized by one sentence taken from it: "Yet am I not disposed to give up their cause as altogether hopeless." There follows the usual World Weekly News-type list of occurrences, as well as a short discussion about the nature of mermaids. So do mermaids exist? It depends, says Wilkin: "Cicero little dreamt of his classical rule being degraded by application to such a discussion as the present; but I shall nevertheless endeavour to avail myself of his maxim — Omnis disputatio debet a definitione proficisci. What is a mermaid?" Note that Browne gives his definition in the second clause.]

2 1 Sam. 5. [1-5: [1] And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it from Ebenezer unto Ashdod.
[2] When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon.
[3] And when they of Ashdod arose early on the morrow, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the Lord. And they took Dagon, and set him in his place again.
[4] And when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left to him.
[5] Therefore neither the priests of Dagon, nor any that come into Dagon's house, tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod unto this day.]

3 [Tritons. In his Saturnalia, I.8.4.]

4 [The heraldic representation of an animal often bears only a tenuous relationship to its actual form, as being designed more for recognition than depiction. Modern depictions of the supporting Lion of England omit the pizzle, whether on anatomical grounds or (far more likely) because of modern squeamishness (21st century sensibility: Pornographic magazine at the eye level of an infant at checkout stand = okay, picture of male animal who isn't a eunuch = not okay; and just wait until the anti-Harry Potter people find out that the Little Mermaid is Dagon in disguise!).]

5 [See also Book III, Chapter XXIII for more on unicorns, beetles, and the like.]

6 [Wilkin: "The cetacea have all two spiracles, but on some they are considerably remote from each other, in others close together, and in some so near that they seem to unite in one and the same opening." We shall pass over in silence the question of the identity of Jonah's fish.]

7 2. Chron. 3.13. [The wings of these cherubims spread themselves forth twenty cubits: and they stood on their feet, and their faces were inward. It should be noted that these are representations of cherubim constructed by Solomon, on the instructions (presumably) of God.]

8 —— Dolia magni non ardent Cynici, etc. [Sat. xiv.308ff:

dolia nudi
non ardent Cynici; si fregeris, altera fiet
cras domus atque eadem plumbo commissa manebit.]

9 [As in Book IV, Chapter II]

10 [Matthew 7:13-14: Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.]

11 Ἐυρυπθλὴς [Iliad xxii, Odyssey xi. "Wide-gated", although there's not much choice in the Homeric vision of the afterlife.]

12 Phornut. de natura deorum. imaginibus.

13 Fulg. mythologia.

14 Albric. de deorum. [imaginibus. These last three marginal notes are not in 1672, but they're in the other editions 1658-1686.]

15 [i.e., the glyphs for the zodiacal signs and for their ruling planets as now used are simplified versions of the earlier, more naturalistic signs]

16 [Wilkin, in remarking that black swans exist, adds "There was a time when the camelopard was deemed imaginary".]

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